Thai Buddhism

Forest monks portrayed in photo exhibition

Venerable Ajahn Cagino, 43, lives in a cave with two snakes and eight bats. The cave is 2km from the nearest village in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand. Nestled in a deep valley hemmed in by high mountain ranges that border Myanmar, Mae Hong Son is isolated from the outside world and is covered with mist throughout the year.

“I’ve had enough of wandering,” says the Malaysian monk of Thai Forest Tradition, which is a branch of Theravada Buddhism.

For 12 years, Cagino had been walking through the remotest jungles of Thailand, before settling…

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See also a slideshow of the exhibition below.

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Encouraging journeys of self-discovery

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Vancouver Sun: Tim Ward, author of What the Buddha Never Taught, says young adults should spend time learning what is meaningful to them alone

If you’re looking for the meaning of life, you’ll benefit from seeking it out yourself, said author Tim Ward, who spent time in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand in the 1980s.

“I think it’s really valuable for everybody, preferably in their 20s, to really come up against the question, ‘Where does meaning reside,’ ” Ward said. “I think that there is an answer, and that is that part of what it is to be human is to generate meaning.

Ward wrote about his experiences in What the Buddha Never Taught, which has just been released in a special 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis.

“One of the things I look at with regret in our current society is that so many of those meanings are given to kids, they sort of just jump onto meanings without having to feel what meaninglessness is like,” Ward said. “They want a career where they will make a lot of money, so they can live in a nice house and drive a big car because that’s what successful people do. That makes me cry and tear out what last bit of hair I’ve got. Where’s your struggle to find the meaning that’s in your bones?

“If anything, that’s my hope for this book on its 20th anniversary that it will encourage younger readers to do that fighting for the meaning in their life, and not accept the values that are given to them.”

Ward, 52, lived in Vancouver for four years while completing a degree in philosophy at the University of B.C. in the early ’80s.

He’ll be in Vancouver for a pair of appearances this month.

“I love going back to Vancouver. UBC is kind of like a great, big family that I don’t get to see very often, and it just really thrills me to go back and be part of campus life again,” he said.

After UBC he travelled to Thailand and spent time in a Buddhist monastery, living life based on the rules of Buddhism.

His experiences practicing meditation, eating just one meal a day and learning to live alongside wild animals became the basis for this book.

“The time I spent among Buddhists really changed my view of the world, and my view of what’s important in my own life,” he said. “This is not a devotional book, it’s meant to be a journalistic account of what happened to myself and others while I was there, including the absurdities and the foibles and the institutional problems that you get when you try to run a community based on Buddhist principles.”

He says one of the key experiences for him was learning to live with creatures that we in the west tend to think of as vermin: tarantulas, scorpions, cobras.

“There’s one passage in the book where I describe walking along a path with a load of laundry and a king Cobra rears right up in front of me,” he said. “I did what we’re taught to do, be very, very calm, and the snake got that and it kept going down the path and left me alone. That was a key moment of realizing that nature was not out to get me.”

He said this experience changed him; he no longer saw the world as out to get him.

“Where this really counts is in the Buddhist view, the entire world of your experience is a creation of your mind.

“Whatever is out there in the world is in a sense a reflection of your inner self,” he said.

“If you see the world as out to get you, you are a house divided against yourself. A kind of inner hatred, loathing, mistrust is taking place within you when you have that attitude against nature.”

Today, he works as a consultant for an international development organization, which sends him to Asia several times a year, but he’s never been back to the monastery where he lived in 1985, when he was 26 and seeking meaning in his life.

He still practises meditation on a daily basis, saying he particularly enjoys Tai Chi, because it is meditation in movement. He was even doing it while we were speaking on the phone.

“I find meditation in movement an easier way to drop into your body and change your mind from left brain thinking to right brain thinking,” Ward said. “I make sure to do that at least once a day, even for just a few minutes, to make this shift into this calmer, silent part of my brain.

“I do this to remind myself that I am not my thoughts. When you can step outside of that, you can immediately feel calm and relaxed no matter how many things might go on in your life that North Americans would say were stress.”

He says dissatisfaction is a natural state of the human mind and that people are always striving for a new job or to get more money, a better car, better friends or a better relationship.

“When we get these things we may feel a moment of relief, but pretty soon our brains find a way to be dissatisfied again,” he said. “When you see that that’s the human condition, rather than try to change your life, you can just try to be with that, and enjoy the life that you’ve got.

“But, too much of that can be a bad thing. There are kinds of dissatisfaction that I think are important to pay attention to.”

He cites the situation in Tunisia and his first marriage as examples of where it’s good to pay attention to dissatisfaction.

Today, he lives near Washington, D.C., with his second wife and he has a 20-year-old son from his first marriage.

He says that although Buddhists might not agree, his connection to his son makes him more concerned about global warming and the future of the planet.

“Every parent gets this,” he said. “When you’re connected to your kids, what happens in 50 or 100 years matters way more. When you’ve got kids you can’t help but be concerned about the future.”

He’s hesitant to say what it is that the Buddha never taught, saying it is the key to his book.

“The heart of Buddhism is asking what is the ego, what is the self? Is it something that in the west we see as a great thing, or is it something that is a fault in human nature, which if only we could get rid of it, we would be happy,” he said.

Ward is writing a new book, Zombies on Kilimanjaro, which asks how to balance the blessings of the ego with its curses.

” I try to take a middle way on this. I think that although the ego may be a cause of a lot of problems, it is a part of our human nature,” he said. “I think Buddhism doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to why we have an ego if it’s something we need to remove.”

Ward is the author of five books, including three spiritual travel and adventures based on his six years living in Asia.

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Photoessay: Close Encounters of the Buddhist Kind

Foreign Policy magazine’s exclusive look inside what it calls a “booming multibillion-dollar, evangelical, global Thai cult.”

Picture this: millions of followers gathering around a central shrine that looks like a giant UFO in elaborately choreographed Nuremberg-style rallies; missionary outposts in 31 countries from Germany to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; an evangelist vision that seeks to promote a “world morality restoration project”; and a V-Star program that encourages hundreds of thousands of children to improve “positive moral behavior.” Although the Bangkok-based Dhammakaya movement dons saffron robes, not brown shirts, its flamboyant ceremonies have become increasingly bold displays of power for this cult-like Buddhist group that was founded in the 1970s, ironically, as a reform movement opposed to the excesses of organized religion in Thailand.

Yet, despite the pageantry, the inner workings of this fast-growing movement are little known to Thailand’s general public, and certainly to the rest of the world, though its teachings loom large among the legions of devotees. The veil of secrecy parted briefly in late 1999, when two top Dhammakaya leaders were charged with embezzlement in what many considered a political ploy to suppress the temple’s growing power. The charges were dismissed in 2006 after the former abbot and a colleague returned some land and nearly 1 billion baht ($32 million) to temple control.

This obscurity is because — despite its 24-hour satellite TV station — Dhammakaya has diligently worked to avoid the limelight. Until now. Over the past year, photographer Luke Duggleby and reporter Ron Gluckman have been granted unrivaled access to the facilities and ceremonies of Dhammakaya, and they provide an exclusive look at this mesmerizing movement.

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Buddhist temple project may begin in spring

A plan to build a Thai Buddhist temple in Columbus, Ohio, is far from dead. In fact, construction on the temple could begin in the spring.

Representatives of the Columbus Buddhism Center have submitted paperwork to the city requesting a lot split for property on Blacks Road.

They also have submitted new paperwork outlining possible plans for the temple.

John Tai, a representative from the Columbus Buddhism Center, could not be reached for comment on the temple project because he is out of the country, but Pataskala Planning Director Diane Harris said she has spoken to Tai and the project is moving forward.

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Clijsters interested in meditation, Thai cooking

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Bangkok Post: US Open champion Kim Clijsters will learn some meditation and Thai cooking during her visit to Hua Hin where she will meet Caroline Wozniacki in an exhibition match on New Year’s Day.

The 84 World Tennis Invitation will be held at the Intercontinentatl Hua Hin Resort and is part of the celebrations of His Majesty the King’s 84th birthday.

In an interview with the organisers, Clijsters said this would be her first visit to Thailand and she wanted to learn about Thai culture.

“I am looking forward to it. An exhibition game gives us a little more opportunity to enjoy the country or city where you are,” said the Belgian.

“I really like to know more about your culture and I’m interested in the spiritual way of life. There is a meditation session scheduled with some monks.”

The world’s third-ranked player added: “Elephant riding is another thing I would like to experience.

“Cooking is one of my favourite activities when I’m at home and I love Asian spices and ingredients.”

She said the exhibition match would be part of her preparations for next month’s Australian Open.

The three-time US Open champion said she wanted to win one Grand Slam or more next year, particularly Wimbledon.

“My father used to be a football player so grass is the ultimate surface in his eyes,” she said.

The other match of the exhibition features American twins Bob and Mike Bryan against Thai twins Sonchat and Sanchai Ratiwatana.

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Monks in their midst

In a stretch of suburban Raynham, a community of ascetics is planning what may be the largest Thai Buddhist temple in the hemisphere

A quiet neighborhood along Raynham’s South Street East is slated to have an unlikely addition soon to its mix of modest homes and small businesses: an ornate Thai Buddhist wat, or temple, the likes of which won’t be found anywhere outside of Thailand, according to its principal designing architect.

The temple, to be called Wat Nawamintararachutis, or NMR Center, will celebrate the life of Thailand’s current monarch, who was born in a Cambridge hospital in 1927. Because of the Boston area’s connection to the king, the project has generated great interest both in the Buddhist community and within the government of Thailand. The Thai government has, in fact, agreed to bear the $16 million cost of construction, set to begin next spring, according to Eang Tan, a member of the temple’s board of directors.

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The temple’s design is the fruit of a team of Thai and American architects that worked for five years to create a meditation center that would contain distinctly Thai Buddhist elements as well as some New England style. For example, while the temple will feature the stacked gables common to Thai Buddhist temples, the gables will be shaped more like those found in the region.“We needed to consider the weather conditions as well as the culture,’’ said the project’s lead designing architect, Been Wang, a principal of Architectural Resources Cambridge. “Thai gables have a curved roof shape and an overhang. These are more like New England gables.’’

The result will be a 109,000-square-foot complex with a four-story museum and temple building, sleeping quarters, and a large conference center, all clustered around a spacious courtyard filled with lotus-shaped fountains and fountains with lotuses. Wang said it will be the largest such meditation center outside Thailand.

Richard Cook, a temple member and an adviser for the project as it obtains the necessary permits, said the center will be notable for its size.

“There are recent temples built in New York City and Washington, D.C.,’’ Cook said. “This will be basically twice their size.’’

The only other Thai Buddhist temple in Massachusetts is the Boston Buddha Vararam Temple in Bedford, a small center situated on about 2 acres. There are about 4,000 Thais in the state, according to Laura Medrano, a US Census Bureau official.

The Raynham temple will boast such typical Thai elements as a 180-foot spire, cast in bronze and covered in golf leaf. The spire will be made in Thailand and shipped here.

Thai Buddhists are not new to Raynham’s South Street East neighborhood. A thriving community of devotees, from all over Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, has gathered on weekends for the past four years at a modest farmhouse on the street. They chant and meditate in a small temple room and are counseled by a half-dozen saffron-clad monks. Meanwhile, younger members are schooled in Thai culture and the 2,500-year-old Theravada Buddhist tradition.

That tradition is one of two principal branches of Buddhism. Theravada, which means “way of the elders,’’ is most prominent today in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, according to resources at the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Its beliefs are drawn from the earliest Pali writings, which are considered the most accurate source of teachings of the historical Buddha, who lived in India 2,500 years ago. The ideal spiritual model of Theravada Buddhism is attaining nirvana, where all obstacles and desires are extinguished.

Mahayana Buddhism, the other principal branch, was the first to be practiced in the United States, brought by Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. The traditions of this branch of Buddhism are more flexible, drawn from a number of later teachings not related to the historic Buddha. In the Mahayana tradition, the ideal is a fully enlightened being who is engaged in helping others to become free of their suffering.

About 50 devotees gather at the Raynham farmhouse on a typical weekend, but during major celebrations that number can soar to 500.

The dream of this tightly knit religious community has been to one day construct an expansive Thai Buddhist meditation center in the Boston area.

The members had decided the complex would celebrate King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej, of Thailand, who was born in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge and has been king since 1946.

“When we were looking for land, we looked in Boston, but we needed more space,’’ said Natthapat Saisena, a member of the Thai architect team. In 2006, a Thai Buddhist abbot who had helped develop a number of other temples in the United States bought the 50-acre Raynham property.

Abbot Phra Promwachirayan then traveled the world studying the elements of various Thai Buddhist temples.

“He then told me his vision,’’ said Wang. “This will be East meets West.’’

The complex will sit about 150 feet from the street, with the lot’s natural downward slope making the size of the buildings less obtrusive. Neighboring properties will be at least 100 feet away. About 6 of the 50 acres will be developed.

With the exception of the local building permit, which is pending, all approvals for the project are in hand, temple officials said.

One recent Sunday, 80 or so members of the temple community turned out at the farmhouse to get a look at a three-dimensional model of the NMR Center. Architects were on hand to talk about the project, scheduled for completion in 2012.

Newton resident Sue Sihatrai, a member of the Thai Buddhist community since 2002, said she looks forward to the groundbreaking.

“I was here when they first started wanting to build a Buddhist center,’’ she said. “I think it will be one of the most beautiful temples in the world. It will be perfect.’’

The Thai Buddhist tradition includes visiting the temple and bringing offerings to monks, who have few possessions of their own. In Thailand, the monks also go into the village for offerings each day, something that’s not possible in Raynham. At the recent gathering, community members organized baskets of gifts for them, like fruit and vegetables, packets of sticky rice and bananas neatly wrapped in banana leaves, and dry goods such as paper towels, toothpaste, and soap.

It’s likely to be a much busier scene in the future.

Once the new center is complete, 15 to 20 monks will reside on the Raynham property. Its dormitory will have room for 100, more than large enough to accommodate visiting monks and those staying for weekend meditation and cultural instruction.

As it is, the Raynham farmhouse already attracts people who come because they are interested in meditation, whether they are Buddhist or not.

“I came from secular meditation that evolved out of Thai Buddhist meditation,’’ said Ken Pitts, who moved to North Attleborough a year ago.

“I and several other people who come here are affiliated with a group in Arlington. Some are recovering substance abusers, and the monks are trained in counseling. Others are Americans interested in meditation.’’

Pitts, a regular visitor, said he tutors the monks in English and provides transportation when they run errands; one of them teaches a class at a nearby community college. He said he expects interest in the temple from those outside the Thai community to grow when the new center is completed.

Most Raynham residents have welcomed the Thai Buddhists to town.

“I’ve gone over and walked the property and was invited to stay for lunch,’’ said Eric Hebert, who lives nearby with his wife, Jennifer.

“From the pictures and models they have, it looks like it’s going to be a nice place.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at

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Thai Buddhists celebrate approval of new temple

The temple will be fit for a king.

Area Thai Buddhists celebrated the town’s final blessing of their future home last week, smiling for the cameras before a model of the largest sanctuary of its kind outside of Thailand.

The 109,000-square-foot Theravada Buddhist temple and meditation center on South Street East will serve as a religious and cultural center and home to as many as 16 resident monks.

It will be topped with a 185-foot golden steeple.

“What a magnificent structure,” Zoning Appeals Board Chairman Robert Newton said before his board unanimously approved the spire’s height.

The plan fulfills the long-held dream of Boston-area Thai families to honor their monarch, King Rama IX, Bhumibhol Adulyadej, who was born in Cambridge in 1927.

Project advisor Richard Cook, a retired engineer, said the complex of buildings surrounding a courtyard was consistent with the religion and culture of Thailand.

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Learning the Robes: 11-year-old devotes summers to sampling the monastic life (Anchorage Daily News, Alaska)

KRISTA MAHR, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska: Five minutes ago, Oni Malamon had his hair shaved clean off for the third summer in a row. He sat on his heels on a towel in the basement of Wat Dhamma Bhavana Buddhist Center, a Thai Buddhist temple on a suburban street in South Anchorage. His eyes were squeezed shut, one cracking open periodically to watch two monks’ orange robes as they spread shaving cream over his head.

Getting bald was the second step that 11-year-old Oni, whose full name is Natachai Malamon, took in June to live as a novice monk for the summer at Wat Dhamma Bhavana. The first step was asking if he could.

As a novice, Oni gets a glimpse of a monk’s life: He sleeps at the temple, wakes up for chanting every morning at 5:30, eats only (mostly) before noon, practices meditation and learns how the principles of Buddhism can apply to everyday things. Like keeping his room in the temple clean.

Glops of shaving cream and hair fell on Oni’s baggy black jeans.

“Why do you have to do it so hard?” he asked. Two monks took turns with the old-fashioned metal razor, encouraging Oni to put his hands back together in prayer now and then to officiate the event. They scraped neat rows in the shaving cream.

“Hey, I feel bald. I need some hair in my life,” Oni said to no one in particular.

His little sister, Oum, sat on a low, green vintage couch, watching the procedure. Their grandmother was upstairs, waiting for the small ceremony in which Oni would be ordained.

“You look like Grandpa now,” Oum, 9, observed.

Oum has inquired about being a nun, an option for girls and women, but isn’t interested in sacrificing her shoulder-length black hair, which some nuns do.

“You’re next,” her brother warned.

The monk leaned in toward Oni’s face. “No, not my eyebrows!”

Oni has been a novice monk three times already: as a 3-year-old in Thailand after his father died and for the past two summers here in Anchorage. He lifted a lanky arm. “How about my armpits?”

Oni’s eyebrows were gone with two swipes of the razor, pale patches of skin left under the ghost of fine black hair. The Venerable Sarit Phunjan leaned in to take a digital photo. Oni grinned and gave a thumbs-up for the camera.

Later, upstairs with his shirt on and his hair off, Oni moaned, “My girlfriend’s going to see me bald.”

In Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend some time removed from the world, either as novice monks or, when they reach age 20, full monks. In Alaska it’s more rare, but every summer novices come to stay at Wat Dhamma Bhavana and other Buddhist temples in Anchorage for anywhere from a few days to the whole summer.

Novice monks of Theraveda Buddhism, the branch practiced widely in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, are ordained in the same way that full monks are. (High monks’ ordination is different.) After a request to become a novice, the boy gets a set of robes and has his head shaved by the monks at the temple.

During the ceremony, Oni officially received the robes from the temple’s senior monk. He’ll wear them for the rest of the summer. At the temple, he’s required to follow 10 training rules of Buddhism. Full monks follow more than 200 rules of conduct.

In the prayer room upstairs, the temple’s senior monk read the 10 rules to Oni, and Oni repeated them back: Do not kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, drink, eat after noon, wear makeup or any scent, dance or sing, sleep on a mattress, or spend money as you would in the secular world.

The robes, which aren’t kid-sized but can be folded to fit big or small people, were handed over.

Once Oni got help with the complicated folding process, he returned upstairs in the robes and sat on his heels in the middle of the ruby carpet in front of four of the temple’s five monks (one was visiting a temple in North Hollywood). He bowed from his waist and was promptly told how to do it right. Phunjan took another digital video.

Oni sighed loudly and tried again.


It was Oni who asked his mother, Supamit Khuntavichai, if he could come back to live at Wat Dhamma Bhavana this summer. During the school year, Oni and Oum visit the temple every weekend with their grandmother while their mom works as a housekeeper in a hospital in Anchorage. Their immediate family of three moved to Alaska in 1996 from Udon Thani in northeast Thailand.

Oni’s mother misses him when he’s not at home for months at a time, she says, but it’s up to him how long he stays.

“The monks teach him to be nice and a good boy,” Khuntavichai says in the temple’s kitchen after a Sunday-morning food blessing.

She wants him to learn about Thai culture. In Thai communities outside of Thailand, monks are vital links to the cultural, social and spiritual worlds that are a part of daily life back home.

“You can use everything you learn in monk life in a normal life,” says Somchai Thonkratok, who left the monastic order two months ago to work for BP Alaska on the North Slope.

One thing Oni was not banking on this summer was wearing his monk’s robes to math class.

He can deal with living away from home, all the way across town, during this summer between fifth and sixth grades. He can sacrifice warm evenings hanging around with friends from school to sit around with five men more than twice his age. He can handle his girlfriend seeing him with the pale scalp of a freshly shaved head.

Clothes were another matter.

But things change. First, there was the offer Oni couldn’t refuse: His mother would give him $100 if he’d wear his robes to summer school until the last day of class in late July. He said the only thing kids at school asked him is if he ever gets to change colors.

Second, there was the matter of the robes themselves, a subject on which Oni has developed some expertise since his ordination in June. After continually being late to morning chanting because he was too slow folding the robe, Phunjan took him aside and showed him some tricks.

Now he’s pretty fast. Not only can he do his own robes, he’s teaching the new novices how to do theirs.


In early July, it’s a full house at Wat Dhamma Bhavana. Three novice monks, ages 7, 12 and 18, have joined the temple for a few weeks, and it’s Oni’s job to show them the ropes.

During the blessings before lunch, in which all the monks sit in a row to chant, Oni sits next to Phailuck Rasavong, the youngest novice. When the boy’s hands drift unconsciously from prayer to his lap, Oni props them back up for him. When he starts to lean over from morning fatigue, Oni gently nudges his shoulders back against the wall.

After the food blessing, as the formality of the chanting wears off, the boys sit down at their table to load their stomachs for a long period without solid food. Monks don’t eat after noon, though novices can drink Ovaltine or eat yogurt and ice cream as the day wears on and hunger pangs set in.

“I want some eggs,” Phailuck says after surveying a table of home-cooked Thai food.

“We don’t have eggs,” says J.D. Lyberger, 12, ordained the day before. He runs a hand over his shaved head. “We have noodles and stuff.”

“Eggs?” Phailuck asks again with hope. Somebody hands him a napkin.

He holds the white square blankly. He came to the temple four days ago to be a novice along with his older cousin, Ramsey Rasavong, who is 18. Everything is still brand new. “What do I use it for?” he asks, napkin in hand.

“Your hands, man,” Oni says, oozing something between disbelief and sympathy. Right here, at this table, Oni is the resident authority on all things great and small. Though second youngest, he’s been in this role the longest.

A young boy in street clothes sits on a large mat in the dining room with the temple members, watching the monks and novices finish their lunches before he can eat.

“Do you want to be a novice?” Phunjan asks from the monks’ table, aiming his thumb at the novices.

The boy shakes his head from the safety of 10 feet away.

“You can try,” Phunjan encourages. “If you can sit down for 30 minutes of meditation … if you wake up early at 6 o’clock, you can try.”

During summers in Thailand, Phunjan has had more than 500 novices at a time under his watch.

“I’m not very strict with the students here,” he says, smiling. “But they shouldn’t know me in Thailand.”

When the boys start to complain about the rules at Wat Dhamma Bhavana, Phunjan tells them about when he was a novice in Thailand, when for two years he woke up at 4 a.m. and learned about Buddhism without watching television or listening to the radio. At night in Thailand, all the novices go to bed like soldiers, he says.


It is Sunday afternoon, and Phunjan, two other monks from the temple, Oni, his sister and J.D., the newest novice, are out getting afternoon exercise, climbing a steep, dusty trail on the back of Flattop Mountain. The monks often go hiking, but it’s J.D.’s first hike in robes.

Before getting on the trail, Oni helps his friend pull the awkward, loose robes over his head and shoulders so his pale scalp and shoulders don’t get sunburned. Though they go to different schools, they’ve known each other from the temple since they were 8.

Oni turns from the group and bolts straight up the trail in a jog. J.D. is not far behind.

“You OK?” Phunjan shouts up the slope at them. The heat this afternoon is fierce. He calls up for them to stop hiking and find a spot to meditate. “Make your power come back!”

Phunjan catches up and finds places for the boys to sit, facing them in different directions toward expansive views of the valley and Anchorage. “Thirty minutes,” he announces.

“Thirty minutes?” J.D. asks, looking up at his teacher from his seat on the scree.

“You want more?” Phunjan looks down at him.

Oni’s eyes are already shut tight. Cross-legged, hands on his knees, his skinny chest rises and falls with the breathing in and the breathing out. Phunjan sits next to him, and they count breaths out loud together: One in, one out. Two, two. Three, three. Four, four.

“You just concentrate on the air going in and out of your lungs and on the wind,” Oni explains later.

Phunjan says that is the level of meditation that children practice, a basic focus on breath and the movements of the stomach for 30 minutes every day. Not on the sirens they could hear from Anchorage. Not on Oni’s little sister poking sticks into mysterious rodent holes in the hillside.

After meditation, J.D.’s and Oni’s attention shifts to throwing J.D.’s wood walking stick like a spear into the hillside. Oni’s throws land at a satisfying perpendicular angle in the scrubby hillside plants. J.D.’s throws aren’t sticking.

“I messed up,” he says. “Are you spinning it?”

“Try again.” Oni hands him the stick.

The hardest part of J.D.’s first 24 hours as a novice was the no-dinner part.

For Oni, the hardest part of his first three weeks has been learning the chants, though now he is the only novice who can follow along at least part of the time. He had three days to learn five verses of a chant in Pali, the language that the Buddha’s teachings were written in during the first century B.C.

“If you can remember one word, you can remember another one too,” Phunjan told Oni a few weeks ago when the boy was frustrated with his lessons. Phunjan talked Oni through the temple’s food blessing word by word, repeating one word five times so Oni could get used to its sound. Eventually, Oni got it.

Now J.D. feels the frustration of hearing and not understanding the foreign words.

“How do you remember?” he asks Oni, readjusting the robes around his spindly frame. “I never remember anything. I don’t even remember anything from school last year.”

Oum, diligently keeping up with the older boys in her flare jeans with rhinestones on the cuffs, is getting bored watching them throw the spear.

“You guys play too much,” she says.

“It’s not play. It’s competition,” J.D. tells her.

“You guys competition too much,” Oum says.

Oni is already looking up the yet-to-be-climbed hill in front of him. One of the monks has hiked ahead and is a bright, distant dot on the trail far above.

“We gotta climb more,” Oni says. It’s only late afternoon, and there’s a whole lot of daylight and no dinner in sight. “I don’t want to go do chanting.”

“We need two hours,” J.D. agrees. The novices set out to catch up under the cloudless blue sky.

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A day in the life: A monk on Fearless Mountain (Ukiah Daily Journal, CA)

Tony Anthony, The Ukiah Daily Journal: Ajahn Pasanno appears out of the woods, walks up a few steps and plunks himself down in a comfortable wicker chair on the front porch of Abhayagiri “Fearless Mountain” Monastery in Redwood Valley.

The day is coming to a close and the peace and the quiet of the place is what is noticeable. The only noise is the distant sound of a lawnmower, which almost seems to come from some other world, a world different from this one. Ajahn, means teacher and is used in place of a first name for the abbot of the monastery. Pasanno means “one having faith and joy,” the name his teacher bestowed on him when he was still a novice.

It is difficult to imagine Ajahn as a young man in a secular sense, now that he is of middle age, with a shaved head and clothed in a simple mustard-colored robe. It seems he was always this person he is now. But Ajahn’s journey began in the 1970s as a young man when he left his home in Manitoba, Canada after finishing his university studies to travel the far reaches of the world. He rambled through Europe, Afghanistan and India, not seeking to become a Buddhist monk but visiting various holy places along the way.

It wasn’t until he arrived in the north of Thailand that he began to feel a sense of belonging. In order to learn more about Buddhism, he attended some classes at a monastery called Wat Nong Bah north of Chiang Mai. “I was just passing through, but the Thai society seemed to have a whole different value system. I felt at home,” he said.

After a month-long stay, the Abbot of the monastery suggested the young man consider ordination with an initial goal of remaining three or four months. Although he was not yet sure what he was getting into, he was willing to give it a try. He took on the robes of a forest dwelling monk thinking it would be only for a short time that was the beginning of the life he still lives now, more than 30 years later.

“You are not required to make a life-long commitment,” Ajahn says, “It just happened.”

The monk says he didn’t have any intuition that he would lead a monastic life.

“When I began it was to learn how to meditate.” But, he says, “at one point, it didn’t seem possible to go back.”

Thus the young monk began a practice where monks wear plain robes and shave their heads in an effort to let go of their own personal preferences.

“Doing this, is about simplification,” Ajahn says. “We renounce the world because of the peace that comes from it. The quality of peace we can access and dwell in is deeply satisfying.

“I encourage people that peace and well-being are a possibility for your life – to explore that for your life. I encourage people to use the tools of a virtuous life.”

An Abhayagiri pamphlet lists the “The Eight Precepts” for leading such a life: 1. Harmlessness: not intentionally taking the life of any living creature. 2. Trustworthiness: not taking anything which is not given. 3. Celibacy: refraining from any sexual activity. 4. Right Speech: avoiding false, abusive or malicious speech. 5. Sobriety: not taking any intoxicating drink or drugs. 6. Renunciation: not eating after mid-day. 7. Restraint: Not seeking entertainment, playing radios or musical instruments. Dressing in a modest, unadorned way that does not attract attention. 8. Alertness: refraining from over-indulgence in sleep.

Choosing to live amidst the beauty that surrounds Fearless Mountain may not seem to be renouncing the world at all, but Ajahn Pasanno says, “we even try to renounce the beauty. Most people try to get more of everything. Then when they get more they feel a loss when they lose it and don’t have it anymore. Then they lament the separation.

“A monk gets to the place of stillness. It is not rejecting anything – it’s another aspect of life that most people don’t pay attention to.”

A gift of land

There are eight monks who live at Abhayagiri, plus one novice and one postulate in training, all living on 250 acres of almost untouched forest land, originally a gift from the late abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah – Master Hsuan Hua. Master Hua dreamed of bringing the Northern and Southern Traditions of Buddhism together again where they could relate in an atmosphere of mutual respect and harmony.

The monastery was founded by two teachers, Ajahn Sumedho, and Ajahn Amaro after they developed a devoted following in Northern California in the1980s. The original Abhayagiri was in ancient Sri Lanka at Anuradhapura and although it follows the Theravada branch of Buddhism, the monastery was known for accepting both teachers and practitioners from many different Buddhist traditions.

“The monastery currently has more people who want to come here and be monks than the facility can handle,” Ajahn says.

A monk named Sudanto, meaning “one who trains himself well” calls Abhayagiri, “a zone of peace people can use as a community resource.” He explains the monastery’s connection with the community as, “an interrelationship that keeps us (the monks) relevant, as a peaceful presence – people with deep knowledge and experience of the Buddhist teachings of peace and wholeness.”

A day in the life of a monk

The day on Fearless Mountain begins at 4 a.m. Then from 5-6 a.m. they begin their spiritual practice with meditation and chanting. These reflections set a tone of the mind during the day. 6:30-7 a.m. there are some general chores, cleaning up and a light breakfast. At 7:30 a.m. the monks meet to delegate chores – maintenance, cooking, office tasks and the job of maintaining the miles of trails which circle through the forests. After chores, the monks have their main meal from 10:30-11 a.m.

When it comes to food, the forest dwelling monks are alms mendicants. Not allowed to plant or pick their own food, they rely on gifts. The monks can be seen on Fridays walking through the center of town collecting gifts of food.

“This creates interdependence with the lay community. We don’t want to be completely cut off,”Ajahn said.

He explains this synergistic relationship. “People from the community come to the monastery to gain more simplicity, more well being. We give the opportunity for people to have the way of living, which is more peaceful, more fulfilling. Sharing our life is sort of the by-product. If one’s goal is to teach, it can be distorted. Refocus on the quality of our lives and that becomes an example to others.”

Ajahn is suddenly explaining some of the core elements of a monastic life. “The more the I’ can get out of the way, the more peaceful things become. The monks spend the remainder of the daylight hours in their cabins where they do various forms of meditation – both traditional sitting, and walking. Ajahn explains: “Outside each cabin is a level 50-foot path where the monks develop sustaining attention on the walking – recognition of words and mental states. ”

At 5:30 in the afternoon the community gathers once again for tea. This is the time for guidance by the teacher. Help also comes from the community at large – mental support from other monks. Even monks learn from each other’s foibles. Asked if monks maintain personality traits like senses of humor, Ajahn says that even ascetic monks remain individuals and some are known for their enlightened sense of humor.

At 6:30 p.m. there is a reading where monks can ask questions, then from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., evening chanting and meditation.

Many questions, of course, will arise even in those experiencing blissful states of mind. Ajahn explains, “of course there is a longing to repeat that experience. We don’t want to be dependent on anything. The enlightened are not dependent on anything for their happiness. Although,”he is quick to add, “there is a quality of compassion. But we strive for separation from attachments that create entanglements. We are conditioned to think we need certain things for our well-being.”

Too much eating or sleeping creates complications in life. Ajahn laughs as he mentions just how much of everything people seem to need to be happy. And then, he asks, are they ever really happy?

As the sun is ready to drop behind the mountains to the west, Ajahn Pasanno is eager to show a “walking meditation.” High up on the mountainside at the end of a path curving between the manzanita trees, is a small cabin where the monk spends most of his time in meditation. Beside the cabin is a 50-foot dirt path where he thoughtfully, mindfully walks with his eyes sometimes closed, sometimes open.

A gift from Thailand

During one evening recently, the Abhayagiri Monastery held a ceremony for the installation of a statue of the Buddha, a gift from a Thai donor. After the sun had set and the moon had risen, a delegation of monks – both resident and visiting but of the same forest tradition – sat on a wooden platform amongst the trees, chanting at the base of the statue. The scene was magical, with a hundred or more devotees from all parts of the country in attendance.

As the mountaintop had grown colder as the night grew later, the visiting abbot Ajahn Liam spoke in his native Pali, translated by Ajahn Pasanno for the western guests in attendance. “We might feel it is a bit cold – but nature is just being natural, natural to the climate and the season. It is just liking it or not liking it.” He went on to say, “Nobody wants to suffer, to experience discomfort.”

The moon was half full, sitting in the sky above the mountaintop, giving a golden glow to the resplendent life-size statue of a sitting Buddha. The breeze rushed through the trees making a sound much like ocean waves breaking on a shore. The monk’s point was that nature is always in the business of just being nature and it is up to humans not to be disturbed by the world around them. Then, only then, when we accept the world for what it truly is, are we able to see ourselves as we truly are – perfect, divine, awakened individuals – happy to be who we are.

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Setting captives free (Buddhist News Network)

Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post: Prisoners can’t go to the temple, so for the past three decades, Phra Khemadhammo has been taking the temple to them. Each week, the British-born Buddhist monk travels more than 960 kilometres to prisons in various parts of Britain to give spiritual guidance to inmates.

Prisoners can’t go to the temple, so for the past three decades, Phra Khemadhammo has been taking the temple to them. Each week, the British-born Buddhist monk travels more than 960 kilometres to prisons in various parts of Britain to give spiritual guidance to inmates.

He does not call it social action or activism, though. “It’s dhamma work,” said the monk matter-of-factly during his recent visit to Thailand.

“What I do in prisons is more or less what I do in the temple where people come to see monks, talk about their problems, seek advice, learn how to meditate.

“But prisoners cannot come to the temple, so I have to take the temple to them.”

The soft-spoken, smiling monk’s eyes glistened kindly through his spectacles.

Phra Khemadhammo, who belongs to the forest monk tradition of northeastern Thailand, was honoured last year with an OBE royal decoration from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his longstanding service to prisoners.

Spiritually trained by the late Luang Por Chah, a revered meditation master and visionary monk, Phra Khemadhammo is among Luang Por Chah’s Western-born disciples who are now helping Thai Theravada Buddhism take root in the West.

Born in 1944 to a middle-class, conventional Christian family, he was 27 when he turned his back on a promising acting career and the lure of fame to live a monastic life.

At 60 – and now referred to as Luang Por himself – he talked about his past, about appearing in National Theatre, television and radio, working alongside renowned actors and actresses, as if all of that had been some other life.

“I never give my full name,” he said gently. “I left it all behind.”

The decision seemed drastic, one that his family still does not accept, but to him it was a natural move once he realised only intensive spiritual practice could bring true peace within. He owes it to his own curiosity.

Meditation practices from the East, being in vogue in the ’60s, made him curious and “want to investigate”, said Luang Por Khem, as he is affectionately called.

To investigate the mind in the same way that actors must deeply investigate and understand the characters they play, he started going to a Thai temple in North London and found to his surprise that meditation did make him feel better and work better.

Meanwhile, he started to see the acting career in a different light. He remembered watching his boss, the illustrious Sir Lawrence Olivier, during a rehearsal. “What I saw was an unhappy looking man. So I could see that, with all that fame, it does not really bring happiness. But it brings concern. You have to hold on to it when you are famous.”

A retreat in 1968 changed his life, he said. “It had a very big effect on me. After that, I found nothing else I wanted to do, except be ordained. The question was how to do it.”

Suddenly balancing an acting career and spiritual practice became impossible. “I wanted to live a reclusive life, which I did for two years,” he recalled. But not being a person who does things half-way, he undertook a pilgrimage to see Buddhism at work in Asia. He landed in Thailand in 1971.

Chance took over. Not knowing where to go, he told the taxi driver to take him to Thon Buri so that he could meet an old friend, Buddhist scholar Sathianpong Wannapok. The driver dropped him instead at Wat Mahathat, which is where he was ordained as a novice.

Then came another coincidence that changed his life. While walking down the street one day, Phra Khem ran into a friend who had also become a monk. “He told me that the only place for us to learn was Wat Nong Pah Pong in Ubon Ratchathani,” he said, referring to the forest monastery run by the late Luang Por Chah.

In May that year, Luang Por Chah had him ordained as a monk, making him the master’s first British-born disciple at Wat Pah Nanachat, a special forest monastery for foreigners.

It was tough, what with the change of food, climate, language and culture. Though caring and compassionate, Luang Por Chah usually left his monks pretty much alone to practise and to learn the Vinaya or monastic codes of conduct; he would take them aside only occasionally if he sensed there were some problems to be solved.

Interestingly enough, the young monk found that the strict discipline of his acting career had prepared him well for this iron test of will. “I was used to strict self-discipline and working on my own. I knew it was important for one’s advancement. I didn’t expect anyone to look after me.”

The cultural gap created much misunderstanding among Luang Por Chah’s local and foreign disciples. But the cultural problems did not bother him. “My mind was focussed on meditation.”

Luang Por Chah, he added, stressed mindfulness practice through breathing so that one is constantly aware of every thought that, in turn, triggers emotion and action.

“He was also strict with the Vinaya, not for the sake of strictness but so that you knew yourself and learned to be ever mindful.”

Such practices made him realise that one can turn everything one does into an extension of dhamma practice. But hopping from one prison to the next was not the life he had imagined for himself. As with several other important incidents in his life, this, too, happened by chance.

Being English, he was chosen to accompany Luang Por Chah on a two-month trip to England in 1977. But the master decided that Phra Khemadhammo should stay on. Then letters and calls from prisons began coming in, asking that someone visit the inmates as a Visiting Minister.

Not knowing how to respond to the requests, he asked Luang Por Chah for advice.

“He answered with one word: `Go!’ And I’ve been going to prisons ever since.”

It became a real-life testing ground for his spiritual training, for while reverence is automatically accorded to monks in Thailand, many prison officers treated him rudely.

“You have to learn to take it, to be extremely diplomatic, to be constantly aware of what you say and do, in short to be mindful,” he said.

In the process, he found that his jai rawn – his impatient, quick-tempered self – was gradually disappearing.

He recalled that during his training in Thailand, he used to wonder why his master “wasted” so much time on people who were visiting the monastery. When asked, Luang Por Chah said that people taught him a great deal. “Now I feel the same way,” he said.

While the difficulties one faces strengthen the spirit, learning to listen to and understand others helps one to understand oneself better, he said.

He also found that many prisoners were eager to learn the art he has to offer. “They experience great suffering and they want to do something about it. They want to change.”

His service is not limited to Buddhist inmates, but to every prisoner interested in Buddhism. With empathy, he sees monks and prisoners as sharing some common ground. “As a monk, I spend quite a lot of time shut away in small spaces. I, too, have to face myself in that solitude.”

Inmate or not, all humans are imprisoned by greed and aversion, by ignorance, prejudice, attachments, he said.

“But I believe that Buddhist techniques enable us to escape this imprisonment so that we can be free to enjoy secure peace.”

In 1985, he founded Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation. The name is derived from an enlightened monk in the time of the Buddha who used to be a murderer. “The story of Angulimala teaches us that the possibility of Enlightenment may be awakened in the most extreme circumstances, that people can and do change, and that people are best influenced by persuasion and above all, example.”

Angulimala is recognised as the official representative of Buddhism in all matters concerning the Prison Service in England and Wales. By not favouring particular schools of Buddhism and focusing on the core teachings, it has received backing from most major Buddhist organisations. The foundation now has a team of 45 chaplains working in about 120 prisons in England and Wales.

His principle is to make Buddhist teachings and practice available as much as possible so that when people choose to investigate more deeply, they can do so. “I believe this availability will create a huge change.”

There will be obstacles ahead, but he welcomes them as crucial spiritual exercises to help him work more earnestly with likes and dislikes.

The dangerous thing for a monk, he said, was having it too easy at their temples. “You tend to get weak and fat that way,” he said.

“Monks should seek ways to `exercise’, not necessarily ways to their liking, because they will only strengthen one’s kilesa,” he advised, referring to greed, aversion and delusion.

Another danger, he added, was for monks to lose the goal of monkhood and Buddhism itself.

With a good-natured smile, he likened Buddhism to a Mercedes. “If you keep polishing it to make it look beautiful on the outside without learning how to drive it, it won’t take you anywhere and soon the engine will start to rot.”

While many feel that better education and a governing body could solve the problems plaguing Thai Buddhism, Phra Khemadhammo sees it differently.

“The real purpose of being a monk is to attain nirvana,” he said emphatically.

Unfortunately, not many monks think about this, he added. Monkhood, in essence, is merely a workshop for one to do some work in pursuit of the total eradication of greed, aversion and illusions.

“Temples are where monks do this workshop and Phra Vinaya [monastic discipline] is what enables the work to take place,” he said.

They are “vehicles” to be used to take one to secure peace. But if monks treats them as only holy forms that deserve respect, “then they’ll just sit there doing nothing”.

Modern consumer culture, which values speed and convenience, is a minefield for monks. Following Luang Por Chah’s footsteps, Phra Khemadhammo is a strong believer in strict adherence to the monastic codes of old.

But how is it possible for monks today not to touch money? Or to not drive? Should monks always rely on others?

“I’ve managed it for the past 40 years. I don’t have money. I don’t have credit cards. I don’t have access of any kind to money,” he answered.

In a spirit of giving and dhamma practice, people buy him tickets or drive him to prisons, he said.

Time pressures and the do-it-yourself mentality led to laypeople preferring to give money to monks, rather than help them. Affluent modern culture, which has weakened our endurance threshold, has also weakened the monks’ belief in the monastic codes of conduct.

Yet he believes that adherence to the codes will help monks stay on the route to nirvana – the only goal of ordination.

“If we want to help monks, we must help them to be good monks,” he said. “And monks must know why they are monks in the first place.”

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